For U.S. abuse victims, crisis reawakens past trauma

Coverage of the European clergy sex abuse scandals reopens healing wounds in America

Published April 8, 2010 12:58PM (EDT)

The clergy sex abuse stories surfacing around Europe stir a sickness in Kristen Merrill's stomach and lure back the sweat-covered nightmares of her own abuse.

Beginning at age 13, she said, she was molested by a priest in a small town parish in North Andover, north of Boston. It happened 30 years ago, but she said the news out of Europe made it seem like today.

"It's horrible," Merrill said. "It's reopening everything."

Still, Merrill hopes the revelations keep coming, to expose the abusers and help other victims find a voice.

"That's more important than worrying about some girl in North Andover and what's going to happen with her nightmares," said Merrill, 44.

The same mixed reaction was reported by other alleged clergy sex abuse victims in the U.S., which is a few years removed from the height of a nationwide scandal that had the similar revelations and accusations about serially abusive priests who were protected by church leaders.

The media attention and disclosures have tapered off in the U.S. after hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements, scattered criminal prosecutions and church-wide changes to child protection policies. But victims still live with the wreckage, and the abuse stories coming out of Europe have them hoping for overdue accountability for the church leaders, while trying to cope with the pain the stories revive.

Bill Gately, an abuse victim of a priest in Canton, said he only scans the news accounts from Europe, refusing to read the number of victims or specifically what the priest allegedly did to them.

"For me to stop and think about just how profoundly darkening that is to some kid's soul is just overwhelming, it's just too much," said Gately, a therapist and part of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Gately, 59, compares living with the abuse to growing accustomed to a missing limb: The new abuse stories force him to remember what he lost. But he also called the revelations "wonderful" because they expose a church that lies to protect child molesters, but still tries to wield moral authority.

"(It) doesn't suggest to me they have any moral credibility," Gately said. "And I think it's time people heard that and realized that."

Alexa MacPherson, who was abused in a Boston parish for more than six years starting when she was 3, said she found some satisfaction in previously unknown wrongs seeing some light. But she said the church's defensive reaction was too familiar.

"My faith was broken so many years ago that now it's almost like a joke to me to have them just keep trying to cover it up," said MacPherson, 35. "It ends up becoming very insulting."

The break in the U.S. scandal in 2002 was followed by years of new abuse revelations, and the prospect of continuous stories from Europe worries Laurie Mullen, who said she was raped when she was 7 during an outing to New Hampshire with a Weymouth priest.

Pain, embarrassment, panic attacks and emptiness have trailed her in the years since she remembered the abuse in 2001, and she fears more is ahead.

"When you read it that it happened to someone else, it flashes it right back to you, and you regress back," Mullen said. "I'm not the 43-year-old person with a law degree, happily married with a wonderful little boy. I'm that 7-year-old girl that he blocked in at the stove and he raped me."

Esther Miller of Huntington Beach, Calif., said that since the European scandal broke, she's connected with numerous clergy abuse victims on online social networks to deal with painful emotions she described as "bubbling," and out of her control.

Miller, who was abused as a teen at a Van Nuys, Calif., parish by a deacon who later became a priest, said many U.S. victims feel a kinship to the European abuse victims "because we've gone through the fire before them." She believes the U.S. victims have laid a foundation for dealing what's ahead.

"Our collective voice will help them because we establish credibility for them -- even though it was so painful," Miller said.


Associated Press writer Gillian Flaccus contributed to this story from Los Angeles.

By Jay Lindsay

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Catholicism Sexual Abuse